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TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Kai Ryssdal: Tennis fans who happened to be up early were treated to a fabulous men’s final at Wimbledon yesterday morning. Roger Federer beat Andy Roddick in a five-set classic. You might even call it a clutch performance. Even though Federer was the top seed, he still needed a long five sets to win his 15th — and record — Grand Slam title.
We use sports analogies like clutch performance all the time in everyday life. But behavioral economist Dan Ariely says sports really can teach us something about life outside arenas and ball parks.
DAN ARIELY: Here’s a question for you: Do you know the term “clutch players?”
Ryssdal: Yeah, sure, you bet. People who make a shot, or make a play, or whatever, under immense pressure.
ARIELY: You know, lots of people believe in clutch players. People believe that there is these magical individuals who do better under stress. But the question is do they really exist? So what do you think?
Ryssdal: Well, I don’t know but right about here, I’m going to guess you’re going to tell me about a study you did because that’s the way these conversation usually go.
ARIELY: That’s right. So first of all we asked people if they believed that there are clutch players, and people believe that there are clutch players. People also agree on who the clutch players are in the NBA, so everything seems fine. And when we look at how many points these people who are called clutch players score in the last five minutes of the game, compared to a randomly chosen five minutes of the game, they actually score better.
Ryssdal: So then the money that they get is money well spent by the team, yes?
ARIELY: Well, that’s not clear yet. Because remember that even if they get more points, there’s two ways to get more points. One is to increase your percentage scoring, and the other one is just to try more. So we looked at their performance, not in terms of absolute scores but in terms of percentages. And what do you think happened now?
Ryssdal: I don’t know. That’s actually a good point. So LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and those guys, are they actually better percentage wise when the pressure is on? I don’t actually know, that’s a good question.
ARIELY: And the answer is no. The answer is no. Their percentage keep the same. I mean they’re all good players, by the way, they’re the best players there are. But they don’t seem to have any clutchness. And this goes both for field goals, and for free throws.
Ryssdal: So it really seems like it’s a perception thing, right? These guys are perceived to be better in the clutch, so we shovel the ball at them more, and hence more money, and then they actually do wind up scoring more points, but percentage-wise it’s a wash.
ARIELY: And you can think about there’s a group coordination mechanism, where these guys believe they are better, the coach believes they are better, the team believes they are better, so they get the ball more frequently, and they try more. They just don’t succeed more. But there’s kinda of an arrangement that says that they’ll succeed more.
Ryssdal: Bring this back to the corporate world for me for a second. Let’s say you’ve got a hot-shot lawyer in a law firm, or some mergers and acquisition specialist in a takeover company. Are they going to get the higher salary because they are perceived to be better at closing the deal or winning a conviction, and then get more money for that?
ARIELY: Yes, I think that there could be the same thing happening in the business world, where we bring people in. We think that they are particularly good at performing under stress, that they are particularly good at the closing moment, the important points. And even if there’s no evidence for it, the fact that we all agree on it, could actually give these people more chances, and they could score more points business-wise, even if their performance doesn’t truly increase.
Ryssdal: At some point, though, Dan, don’t even clutch players hit a cold streak, whether it’s in the business world, or on the court or on the playing field, and then their clutchness factor kinda goes away?
ARIELY: It could happen. But here comes another human element, which is our faulty memory. And you can think to yourself about what do we remember from different basketball games. So for Michael Jordan, for example, there’s a very famous shot that he made to win the championship, and people remember the shot very strongly. Very few people remember that the game before that, where they could have won the series, he missed the final shot. So there’s not just a question of how good in clutchness are these players, but how faulty is our memory, and do we just remember the good ending.
Ryssdal: Dan Ariely teaches behavioral economics at Duke University. His book is called “Predictably Irrational.” Dan, thanks a lot.
ARIELY: My pleasure.